A Talk on Racism Honoring the Legacy of Jonathan Myrick Daniels
By Mickie Richardson
The following is a lightly-edited transcript of an August 12 sermon delivered by Mickie Richardson at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Randolph. Mickie first shared her story as part of a service commemorating the life and work of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopalian seminarian and civil rights activist who gave his life fifty years ago to save a fellow civil rights worker, and has given us permission to reprint it here.
We begin this morning with a portion from Proverbs, chapter 4 (ESV): “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”
When I was in the fifth grade in a parochial grammar school, Sister Alida was my teacher. Her mission as a nun was to make everyone aware that we needed to do something “for those poor kids in Africa and the Indians who didn’t have enough to eat or who didn’t even know about God!” But her main message was to remind us that all people are children of God and for that very reason, all must be loved by us. I will tell you that Sister Alida was a very tenacious soul, and every day in the fifth grade I heard that message. I believed her. She was so passionate she had to be telling the truth and she was probably the start of my involvement in racism issues later on in life.
Fast forward a few years. In high school I was so caught up in my religion (still a Roman Catholic that at that point), that I was sure that when I graduated I would become a nun. I could teach children what Sister Alida taught me. Until then I had met only one black person: Lefty Gill.
One Friday night a bunch of us teenagers went to a weekly dance at the YMCA. We met a guy named Lefty Gill. Although he lived in Bradford, the same area of Haverhill that I lived in, I had never met or seen him before. That night he taught us how to do the jitterbug. We had a great time! Afterwards we all walked home together, laughing and talking. It was a super night. When I got home my mother asked how the night had gone, and I launched into the story of how Lefty taught us to do the jitterbug.
“Who’s Lefty?” my mother asked.
“You know his grandmother,” I said. “She comes in the store.”
My mother was a clerk in a little Clover Farm Grocery store. She thought for a minute, then she said very quietly, “Well, she’s colored.” And that was all she said.
We didn’t talk about it at all after that, but I remember later thinking about how quiet she got and wondering why. We had never had a conversation about race.
When Neil (my husband) and I started dating, many of our conversations revolved around religion and why we each believed the way we did. These talks began to build some doubts in me. My questions were not welcomed in the weekly school visit from the parish priest. However, the priest at Neil’s Episcopal Church answered them all!
When I graduated from high school I left the Catholic Church. That September I was received into The Episcopal Church. For the first time in my adult life I had a true sense of where I belonged. I made my choice and my faith grew.
When Neil and I were dating, unspeakable things were taking place in the South against black people; lynchings, school desegregation issues, and black people being stopped from voting. The news was filled with these atrocities and we talked about them often. How could God let such things go on?
…Unspeakable things were taking place in the South against black people… How could God let such things go on?
Shortly after Neil and I were married, a priest from the South came to our Episcopal church in West Newbury, Massachusetts. He had been an attorney, turned priest and was very involved in trying to help people understand the race issue. Shortly after his arrival, The Episcopal Church in the Boston diocese began running workshops about race. We were able to attend, and having met a very powerful speaker there, Roger Williams, we decided to go see him to ask if he would help us run a mini-workshop at our church.
This next story is important, because for me, it was an awakening to the racism in myself that I didn’t know existed. We’d gone to Roger’s office in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was a hot July day, in an un-air-conditioned office, on the third floor, in an old building. Our two-month-old son, Peter, was with us. We started to tell Roger our hopes for a workshop. Soon he said, “Listen you guys, it’s hotter than hell in here. Let’s go to my house. It’s just a few blocks away, and it will be cool in the backyard, and we can have a cold beer while we talk.” We agreed.
When we arrived Roger left us in his living room while he went to find his wife. I was looking all around at the nicely kept room and thinking to myself, “Wow, this is a nice clean place!” Then I felt myself color red with shame. Where had I ever gotten the notion that it wouldn’t be? Who told me that black people weren’t clean? I was hot with disgust at myself – just so embarrassed. Fortunately for me no one knew what I had just gone through. But I didn’t forget.
Roger’s wife, Mamie, took us out on the porch and offered us a drink. I opted for water, and Neil confessed that he didn’t drink, to which Roger exclaimed, “What? I never met an Episcopalian that didn’t drink!”
Just then their teenage daughter, Debbie, came in and wanted to know if she could hold Peter. And guess what the first thing she did was? She rubbed her hand over his head to feel his hair. Now I don’t know how many little black babies you’ve ever had the occasion to meet, but my experience has always been that the very first thing a white person does is run their hands over the baby’s hair. We can be so alike, so curious about each other.
We can be so alike, so curious about each other.
Not long after, we met a couple as a result of an article in the local paper about the NAACP. We called and asked to talk with them about what they did in the Merrimac Valley Branch. We met and we asked if we could join, and they were very pleased to have us. We had been unsure as to how white people would be welcomed in the NAACP. The rest of that short visit changed our lives.
Over the years the black people in the Merrimack Valley area (Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill) came to really know us and we them. Trust developed and we became close friends with a number of families.
In 1969, the Branch was looking for someone to become a leader for the youth group, and when no one black rose to the occasion, Neil stood up and said he’d give it a try. It was a little unprecedented to have a white man lead a black youth group. The kids adapted in a short time; with the parents it took a little longer for them to get over their suspicions. The kids learned quickly that Neil was there to guide them, not as their “leader.”
The youth voted in their own group president and began to talk about what effect a bunch of kids could have on the race issue. They also began to gather at our house on a fairly frequent basis. We had a large basement and, since there were no public places for kids to congregate, they started coming to our house. Friday nights became a place for the youth to bring their records, listen to music, dance, and have fun.
We suppose the neighbors got used to them being there after awhile and probably breathed a sigh of relief that nothing went wrong. A bonus in our lives was that our sons, Peter and John, got to know these kids, and several of the youths became our babysitters and are friends to this day.
As Psalm 85 (BCP, p. 709) says, “Mercy and truth have met each other:* righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
As the Civil Rights Movement grew, so did our involvement.
As the Civil Rights Movement grew, so did our involvement. We marched. We raised membership levels for the NAACP. We each took on various positions within the Branch. We wrote letters. And we raised money so there’d be enough to send delegates to the quarterly and annual conferences. One year I was a delegate to the National in Atlantic City. For the first time in my life I realized what it felt like to be a minority. With the attendance at somewhere in the 2,000+ range, there were 22 of us who were white. The difference was, that the initial speech from the podium was addressed directly to us.
“Those of you who are white and have joined with us at this convention, must not be intimidated or feel threatened when comments about how ‘whitey’ treats us come up in conversation. It does not mean you. You have shown us that you understand, and we appreciate your being here.”
I’m sure that not many black people ever received such a welcome from a white crowd.
* * *
The day that our own Rev. Angie Emerson stood in front of this lily white congregation, after her sermon about the massacre at Charlottesville, she asked us, “What are you going to do about it?” It was like a floodgate opening for me. I could feel my heart pounding and I thought, At last! We get to do something about racism here in Vermont.
Neil and I often said the lack of diversity was the one major downside of living here. And while what we are doing isn’t going to change the diversity landscape, it is an opportunity to get people to talk about it, to help them ask questions of themselves, and to share their feelings about race.
And so Focus On Racial Equality (FORE) was born as a result of that challenge. We were joined by Tim Eberhardt and Betty Edson and recently, Lynne Gately. FORE has shown films that provide insight into some relatively unknown subjects for many white people, and we are now working on an initiative with the high school.
I have never truly thought of my journey as being driven by faith. For me it feels more like a moral obligation.
As time has gone on, I have never truly thought of my journey as being driven by faith. For me it feels more like a moral obligation. Looking back, I am grateful that my relationship with God has shown me that it is He who has guided my journey, and now my faith is strengthened.
In the featured photo: Jonathan Daniels by Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45648799